Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Historians and Science

with 5 comments

By Wiz

Anelise, over at Red Herrings, writes about the need for more intersections between psychology and history. Specifically, she points out that many social psychologists have demonstrated that perceptions about gender tend to mirror what many social theorists have long argued. Objects or activities which are feminized, for instance, begin to appear as having less value to participants in these studies, a result which seems to echo the arguments of many gender theorists.

Anelise ends by calling for more interdisciplinary cross over between psychologists, historians, and activists:

…the suggestion was floated that historians and psychologists might benefit from working with one another. I think that we might add activists to the mix, both to give us more tools to de-center the oft-poorly-reported evo-psych stories that perpetuate tired gender stereotypes without much cause, but also as a means of connecting the people who are approaching the same problems from different perspective.

I totally agree. I’m guessing, though, that historians would make two counter-arguments, neither of which I think are convincing. The first, which is the last resort of the historical scoundrel, is to simply plug our ears, say “historicize, historicize” over and over again, and hold dearly to the idea that every possible historical era is so radically different that any attempt to study human psychology must, by definition, engage in unpardonable acts of essentialism or biological determinism (thus protecting our little tenured, or, more likely, not tenured, niche, at the expense of making us totally irrelevant). No one thinks, of course, that all people are the same in all situations. But in my mind, this type of scientific research at least proves possibilities. In other words, it at least proves that there are societies (like ours today) in which you can code an activity as female, enter that into the discourse, and effect how people think about things. This makes it easier, I would say, to suggest that similar things happened in the past.

The second, and slightly more convincing, counter-argument, is that we should be wary of valorizing scientific research too much. Anelise calls this the belief that “science justifies arguments that other people have been making for awhile, but only with the addition of science are those arguments valid.” The danger is that people might start to think that social theory is only useful if its been validated scientifically, which would force us into narrow positivistic frameworks– the very type of thought that much social theory exists to disrupt.

Fine, we should be conscious that science doesn’t tell the whole story. Neither, of course, does critical theory. But the fact that any discipline only tells a partial story is no reason to ignore the insights that we can get from it.

This is not to say I have any actual intention of reading psychology journals. But I do think historians are unforgivably parochial sometimes, and I’ll applaud any move to get away from that.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 3, 2011 at 00:22

5 Responses

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  1. Dan Smail, a medievalist, I think is particularly good at doing this kind of cross-over work– really into talking to archeologists, evolutionary biologists, etc. His book Deep History is a great example of this kind of work:

    His big thing is this:
    “Taking Paleolithic man seriously, Smail argues, requires us to understand that history and biology always shape each other — there is no ascent from the tyranny of brute instinct to the freedoms of civilization.”

    Basically, enough with the Cartesian divide bullshit already.


    February 3, 2011 at 07:15

  2. history of emotions as a field borrows quite heavily from cognitive neuroscience. William Reddy has done a great deal of work putting these together in a careful way. he has several methodological articles in the past few years, and then the larger book, Navigation of Feeling, about the French Revolution.


    February 3, 2011 at 07:37

  3. This is an interesting post, though I would say that I’m very skpetical of “activists” involved in academic projects. That is to say, I’m fine with scholars being activists in their spare time, but I believe in a strict separation between activism and the academic project.

    I guess I’m also less fearful of “narrow positivistic frameworks.” I’d argue that “positivistic frameworks” need not be narrow at all.


    February 3, 2011 at 17:50

  4. Weiner, what I think I meant about activists is that a lot of the things that, say, historians and psychologists are saying about gender (independently, for the most part) are also being said by gender activists, and that perhaps it would benefit the activists to delve deeper into academic work, but also that dialogue between activists and academics might not be a bad thing. I realize that I am rather starkly differentiating between the two groups – academics and activists – and that some of us may wear multiple hats – but I think that at worst, interdisciplinary work yields arguments about specific approaches, and at best alerts people to questions they might never have thought to ask.


    February 3, 2011 at 21:40

  5. […] Yet it is precisely these kinds of difficulties that, according to Lucas, make studies of political warfare so potentially fruitful. In common with other students of Cold War history, Lucas argues that a scholarly division currently exists. On the one hand are those works which stress the conflict’s diplomatic, economic, military and political dimensions, typically privileging the state and emphasizing questions of geopolitics and national security (which he sees as the dominant complex of ‘diplomatic’ approaches). On the other are those studies which focus on such things as ethnicity, race, gender and the media in relation to the Cold War, works which for some critics attend less to agency or causation than context and discourse (in his view a marginalized, ‘cultural’ set of approaches developed in more recent years). By focusing on the ways in which during the 1940s and 1950s a public–private alliance came into being, motivated Make sure to also read: You can also read the following related post: Additionally on this topic you can read: Related to this you can read: […]

    nuclear war 2011

    February 5, 2011 at 21:48

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